These days, new operas don’t drop out of the sky as they did, say, in the nineteenth century, but when they do, they have to very good. Some composers allow musical language and innovation to mar what’s going on in the story line on stage, or obscure the singers. However, this is not so with Philip Glass’s latest opera, The Trial, based on the well-known Franz Kafka novel. The story centres on the arrest of the main character Josef K, who is nevertheless allowed to carry on with daily life. The reasons for this “joke” detention are never made clear, and he has defend himself in a series of court appearances, held in various strange locations. In spite of his best intentions, he cannot fight the system and has to accept his fate.
If you know Glass’s other operas (Satyagraha or Einstein on the Beach), you’ll find the music written here is different, as if evoking the Central European world of Kafka. Sure, there are still the rolling sequences of arpeggios that he is famed for, but there are also funky bass lines and Weill-like jazzy writing for winds and percussion prefacing the court scenes. There are other things worth noting too: the harmony is constantly shifting in a new way for Glass; there is real clarity of vocal writing; and there is lots of percussion!
The production is sparse—a simple stage with a bed, chairs and table, and is visually very striking. Apart from Josef K (Nicholas Lester), each of the seven excellent singers cover various roles. The small chamber orchestra is also excellent, playing continuously throughout, conducted very efficiently by Derek Clark. Between them, they bring out the mix of gravity and whacky humour that Kafka clearly intended, and Glass responds in equal measure with his colourful score.
Scottish Opera should be congratulated on being part of this co-commission with three other companies, which seems to be the norm these days to ensure projects such as this can be realised.
Judging by the ovation at the end, the packed King’s Theatre audience clearly thinks it is good!